Kittens

The morning was brisk and crisp and bright. I tugged the door tightly shut behind me. Already late, I fumbled for my keys and rushed down the short walkway to my car. I was not expecting to see the two bundles of fur that nearly blended into the gravel. They trembled in the early fall air, the ground sapping away any residual warmth from their shivering bodies.

I hesitated. There was no maternal figure or caretaker in sight, though I knew what the parents looked like. Both were white and one was spotted with orange while the other with black, similar to their two children clustered together at my feet. I had often heard the parents yowling late into the night, lingering around my back doorstep looking for food. I never fed them but my neighbor X had taken a recent liking to them, even giving them whimsical names that he doggedly tried to make stick as he fed them scraps that were often from meals I had cooked for him. They never answered to X but had consequently become more aggressive and confident in parading around my steps, even beginning to meow at me in languid expectation when I returned home exhausted from long days at work. This was not something I wanted to encourage and had steeled my soul over time to resist advances that others would have interpreted as charming or piteous. I knew the cats bore no special affection for me; they had no reason to, save the hunger in their eyes.

But I hesitated, conflicted in the middle of my early morning rush. The grown cats were nowhere to be seen, though they were likely watching my actions. I wanted to leave the kittens there; after all, I had no responsibility, ownership, or indebtedness to them. I did not think I could care for these kittens, as cute and helpless as they were, any better than the feral instincts of thousands if not millions of years of cat history. I already struggled enough to find time to care for myself, my neighbors, my patients… I knew that if I stopped for a moment, the gravity of caretaking that had become professionally instinctual would pull me, compel me, perhaps even obligate me to care. In the most efficient and realistic terms, I did not need to care.

But I hesitated. I remembered what had happened on the same doorstep a year ago shortly after I had first moved in. It was a similar morning, a similar rush, and a similar arrest to an otherwise ordinary routine. There had been a brutal storm the night before and though the sky had been clear, I had opened the same door to find a very drowned and very dead kitten lying there. I was again late and had sick patients to rush to care for and so I stepped over the dead body and drove to work. The hospital was so busy I barely remembered the dead kitten until I came home late that night, bone-tired and dreading dealing with yet another corpse. Thankfully there was none; my roommate had somehow taken care of the disposal. However, the image lingered with me and, unsurprisingly, immediately came to mind.

At that point I wanted to stop wasting time thinking and hesitating, so I quickly went back into the house and fetched a plastic box and lined it with an old pillow and dirty towels. I fished out a used plastic bag to use as makeshift gloves and gingerly lifted the kittens into the box, which I then laid out in a safer location in my backyard. Within minutes the kittens warmed up and immediately began mewling and searching for a mother. They could barely have been a week old, as their eyes were still mainly blind and led them to forage futilely within the box.

The whole scenario took less than ten minutes, but I was both irritated and satisfied with my improvisational efforts. I left for work. In the office, between seeing patients for back pain and drug addiction and diabetes, I asked my co-workers what they thought I should do. Almost unanimously, they agreed that I carried no responsibility, though a few thought that since I had now begun to care for these kittens, I couldn’t abandon them easily. Nobody really answered my most serious questions, the ones about whether or not I had an ethical obligation to care. Perhaps this was because I really wanted confirmation that I had no need to care and could be released from any moral culpability for whatever happened to these two kittens. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I already knew that such thinking was wishful at best and maybe even callous and deplorable at worst.

When I returned home, the kittens were gone. Someone or something had snatched them out of my shelter. I assumed it had been their parents and was grateful but a bit sad even though still sure I would see them around. I didn’t see them for a while. I began asking X if he had, and he had not known that there were kittens though he was not surprised. “They probably hid them away,” he said and the thought was comforting at the time, though I came to realize that I still did not trust the parents and was reminded of their children, all of the living and dead ones I had seen, every morning as I opened the door.

I remember watching X and his father argue over this. Their house and mine were separated by another row home that had been shuttered after its owner died a few years ago. We chatted and called out to each other over the overgrown backyard lot in between us. I watched as the feral parents lazily wandered through the tall grass and weeds. Earlier, X and his father had been talking about the new food stamps they had just qualified for. The conversation meandered to talking about the cats, and X’s father called them a nuisance that should have been neutered like the other ones in our shared backyard lot. I shared his perspective, though I watched X carefully as he listened quietly and defiantly, even slipping some food to the cats as we spoke. I knew there was a long history of tension between X and his father that partially stemmed from gaps in generation and culture. X was my age and equally as expansive, ambitious, and impulsive while his father was cautious, deliberate, and well-weathered. Though X knew how to entertain, it was his father who seemed to earn most of the keep in the family. Both of them were my good friends and neighbors, though at the time we all seemed to have different opinions on what to do with our local fauna, and as the three of us argued over their fate they mewled and hinting that their young children had been hidden away somewhere close by.

A few days later a work crew, supposedly hired by the bank that had repossessed the house between us, came through and cleaned house. The cats suddenly emerged, displaced from their hiding spots, and I watched as the kittens crawled through the grass blindly and weakly, barely able to crawl more than a few feet as they escaped the din. The parents hovered around as they could but were often sent running and ducking by the cursing workmen and curious neighborhood children. I watched from my doorstep, mostly silent.

The next day I was sitting in my room, which overlooks the lot, and overheard two neighborhood kids clamoring around the abandoned house. Something had caught their attention and they were noisy and purposeful. I don’t know what compelled me, but I dashed down the stairs and immediately confronted them.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing.” They were siblings, perhaps six and twelve years old. The younger one wore his expressions far more plainly than his brother, who had long ago learned to hide his intent and purposes from strangers.

“You know that’s not your property. That’s trespassing.”

“We’re looking for worms. For fishing.” I looked at the younger brother, who averted his gaze as they lied.

“You can look in my backyard. That’s not your house.”

“We’re looking for our cats.” The older one became defiant and confident.

“Your cats? What do they look like? There are only kittens there, and you leave them alone.” I was surprised at the force and betrayal of emotion in my own words.

“They’re not your cats. They’re ours.”

“What do they look like?”

“Um… you know…” They clearly didn’t. I became more angry and upset, both because of the increasingly obvious lies they insisted on telling to my face as well as their obvious intent to find these kittens. I began blurting out my thoughts.

“You leave those kittens alone. They’re not yours, and they need their mother now. They’re also dirty, and you should leave them alone.”

We argued for a few more minutes and then they ran off, pretending to be distracted by something across the parking lot. I waited uneasily for a few minutes, thinking about what I should do to protect the very animals whose caregiving responsibilities I had already struggled to absolve myself from. I knew what these children would do. They would think they could care for the kittens on their own and would discover instead through their naïveté, impulsiveness, and inexperience that such young kittens actually cannot survive on cow’s milk alone or from inconsistent attention or from a human mother’s unforgiving wrath.

But I was not going to get involved. I was not going to trespass. I was going to shut my door, go to sleep, and figure things out in the daytime. I was going to give everyone and everything the benefit of a doubt and shield them from my cynicism about our ability to care and care well. I was going to observe and watch what happened.

And this is what happened: I never saw the kittens again. After a few days, I began asking X and some of the other neighborhood kids if they had seen them either, but there was nothing to describe. I watched the parents continue to stalk our backyards, but never with kittens in tow and no longer with purpose. I am no expert in feline emotions, but I wanted to imagine that there was a hint of sadness to their loss even as I knew it to be unlikely. They were only animals, scavengers whose existence was only made possible by our excess and whose misery was enabled by a sick combination of our pity and indifference. It is no wonder then that they acted as if this was nothing new, as if they had no reason to expect anything different from a backyard world perpetually littered with plastic wrappers and beer bottles and the inconsistencies of human affection and disgust.

The kittens
The kittens
Kittens

GMHC and Entitlement

gmhc-2013Greetings from Louisville, Kentucky! Four out of the five authors are here at the Global Missions Health Conference 2013, where many of us met for the first time. We are excited to make new friends, catch up with old ones, and discuss some of the future planning for this growing blog.

In the evening’s first plenary session, Dr. Brian Fikkert, co-author of “When Helping Hurts”, gave a sobering overview of how our perspectives on poverty determine our approaches to the people we encounter living with it. In short, if we view it as primarily an issue of material deprivation, we will attempt to “fix it” with a compensatory financial response. However, the issues are never that isolated and are always rooted in other issues, such as broken relationships with God, with others in our community, and with ourselves. In exploring these roots, we find that we ourselves, the so-called “helpers”, are also impoverished and that only through the reconciliation brought through the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all sectors of life can we hope to find true and lasting transformation.

It reminded me of an old post on Entitlement (excerpt here):

One of the most dif­fi­cult things I’ve strug­gled with since mov­ing [into the inner city] has been a sense of enti­tle­ment. That word is not one I ever hear from those liv­ing here, mainly because it’s never used in a pos­i­tive con­text. It is typ­i­cally in ref­er­ence to “hand­outs to the poor” and finds its anchor­ing in food stamps and other poverty-related imagery, even though the largest enti­tle­ment pro­grams in the US are Medicare and Social Secu­rity (which merit the name sim­ply because they are guar­an­teed payouts/benefits from the gov­ern­ment, even if they are drawn from money you put in pre­vi­ously through your pay­check). I hear it mainly from politi­cians these days, peo­ple who want you to believe that such hand­outs are not only unmer­ited but expected. It is meant to inspire you with a sense of injus­tice: that there are deserv­ing vic­tims and unde­serv­ing free­load­ers, there are hard­work­ing bene­fac­tors that just need a hand and lazy ingrates who not only feed off the sys­tem but feel that the ben­e­fit is owed to them…

The true real­ity of our human con­di­tion is that we are all impov­er­ished, that there is noth­ing that we deserve or have earned by per­sonal right or vig­i­lance. We are fools to think oth­er­wise. Pol­i­tics gets it all wrong; it is not that 47% feel enti­tled, or that 99% are dis­en­fran­chised or that 1% hoard the wealth. We are 100% impov­er­ished in demo­graphic, in spirit, and in human condition.

Who will lib­er­ate me? How am I freed from this body of death? In Jesus Christ, we find the secret to con­tent­ment, the efface­ment of enti­tle­ment. Through the will­ing and inten­tional iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Christ and his suf­fer­ing, I choose to allow the rev­e­la­tion of the self­ish and human-centered desires of my heart and through that twinge of self-righteousness and enti­tle­ment, under­stand the audac­ity and mag­ni­tude of the self-emptying suf­fer­ing of Jesus Christ.

P.S. If you would like to share thoughts about your own experiences or reflections on the inner city, send them to us to publish! E-mail [email protected].

GMHC and Entitlement

Money Makes Good Insulation

First, before reading any further, make a list of the top three things you struggle with as a Christian.

***

I used to have a great view of the back lot of our block. In the center is a little island of wild grass where a few abandoned cars sit tiredly, waiting to rust into the ground or be stripped for parts. Around it is a ring of gravel with enough divots and potholes in it to make me swerve my car as if driving through a minefield. This circular pathway is itself surrounded by small lawns that boast a variety of cultivation. Some are nicely kept patches with little gardens set in neat tufts of greenery. Some are strung with clotheslines or inhabited by barbeque grills and patio furniture. Others are fenced off to keep the big dogs inside, even though their loud barking at night stretches beyond the chain links to echo with the yowling of stray alleycats. Our lawn seems to be a magnet for the litter and trash and dead kittens of the alleycats, the ones that the SPCA did not get to spay.

Last year, when I first moved in, I kept the window open at night with a large box fan. It was a great fan, blowing in some of the tepid and humid summer air as well as all the noises of the lot. I spent a lot of those nights struggling to fall asleep, sweating fitfully in bed while listening to the barking dogs, the bass of passing cars, the creaking of neighbors’ doors, and more barking and yowling and occasional gunshots from the nearby park and then more barking and yowling. I desperately wanted to get an air conditioning unit but was told by my housemates that the electrical wiring near my room was old and that an AC unit might blow a few fuses. Continue reading “Money Makes Good Insulation”

Money Makes Good Insulation

Entitlement

One of the most difficult things I’ve struggled with since moving here has been a sense of entitlement. That word is not one I ever hear from those living here, mainly because it’s never used in a positive context. It is typically in reference to “handouts to the poor” and finds its anchoring in food stamps and other poverty-related imagery, even though the largest entitlement programs in the US are Medicare and Social Security (which merit the name simply because they are guaranteed payouts/benefits from the government, even if they are drawn from money you put in previously through your paycheck). I hear it mainly from politicians these days, people who want you to believe that such handouts are not only unmerited but expected. It is meant to inspire you with a sense of injustice: that there are deserving victims and undeserving freeloaders, there are hardworking benefactors that just need a hand and lazy ingrates who not only feed off the system but feel that the benefit is owed to them. I don’t mean to be politically one-sided, but it is impossible to ignore a statement like Mitt Romney’s, who put it starkly and bluntly:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what … he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.… I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

In watching the video, you can hear the disgust that permeates that single word, “entitlement.” It is not a pretty word, mainly because it is not meant to be. For some reason (perhaps many reasons), it is important to distinguish between those who are deserving and who are undeserving, those who have earned a right or entitlement and those who have not.

But this is not what I mean in struggling with entitlement. It is not a problem with “them”; it is a problem with me.

It was difficult to describe at first, these twinges of irritation, cramps in the soul. It would be a missed compliment I had been expecting to receive, perhaps triggered by a generous and sacrificial action on my part that went underrecognized and underappreciated. Or it would be a moment of temptation to slip a reference to my educational pedigree into the conversation, how unusual and awkward I felt in a community “so different from the one I grew up in.” I still can’t describe exactly what it was I felt entitled to, but it was probably a number of things: a pat on the back, gratitude, respect, change. I guess I wanted to fit in enough to be accepted, but stick out enough to be exalted. And phrasing all this so bluntly sounds terribly egotistical and obnoxious, but it is what I struggle with, and I describe it because perhaps you struggle with it too. There is a neediness deep inside me for what I subconsciously believe is the rightful recompense for my efforts. Some days it is just the right to be thanked, to a quiet home at night, or to working heat in the house. Other days, it is the right to have my desires fulfilled, to be praised, to see positive results in my work.

But in reality, I deserve none of these things. My sentiments of entitlement run deep, but they run foul.

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. — Revelation 3

The true reality of our human condition is that we are all impoverished, that there is nothing that we deserve or have earned by personal right or vigilance. We are fools to think otherwise. Politics gets it all wrong; it is not that 47% feel entitled, or that 99% are disenfranchised or that 1% hoard the wealth. We are 100% impoverished in demographic, in spirit, and in human condition.

Who will liberate me? How am I freed from this body of death? In Jesus Christ, we find the secret to contentment, the effacement of entitlement. Through the willing and intentional identification with Christ and his suffering, I choose to allow the revelation of the selfish and human-centered desires of my heart and through that twinge of self-righteousness and entitlement, understand the audacity and magnitude of the self-emptying suffering of Jesus Christ.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. — Philippians 3

Entitlement